[ISEA2016] Artists Statement: Roland Graf — Internet of Shoes

Artist Statement

Public Space Experimental swarm light installation and network for collective action 2016

The “Internet of Shoes” is an experimental swarm light installation and part of an ongoing research project at the University of Michigan. In this installation, a group of pedestrians can perform collective actions on the street using interactive LED shoelaces that communicate with each other in a wireless mesh network. With the dawn of the Internet of Things, more and more people and their devices are becoming tied together with wireless network technology. Some estimates predict that there will be about 26 billion devices on the Internet of Things by 2020. Yet little do we know about how this world of smart objects that is just unfolding will actually look or feel like for the everyday user on the street. Much less do we know about the big data and the use of this data that all these connected objects will generate. This project explores how the Internet of Things, or what is also called the second digital revolution, can shape collective actions on the street. It builds on the power of self-organized mesh networks that wirelessly connect people and their devices directly to each other without passing any centralized organization such as a phone of Internet provider. However, this project also highlights our massive data trails that we leave behind when we walk in cities where everything –wearables, homes, environments, etc.– is smart and connected turning our bodies into nodes of a control and commodification system.
The objective for the installation was to develop interactive shoelaces that can easily be threaded in a shoe or tied around feet or arms. Each shoelace consists of a custom-designed transceiver unit with two LED’s that are coupled with a flexible plastic fiber that serves as a light guide and shoelace. All components are powered with a miniature battery and sit in a small weatherproof and easy to attach plastic enclosure. With this interactive shoelace network the public can experience the world of connected things on their own body. For example, the network can be set to trigger a light wave if a “critical mass” of participants stand very closely to each other or if they perform collective actions such as jumping or stomping on the ground collectively. Alternatively, the network can be programmed to give participants certain time windows (e.g. indicated by blinking light) within which they can press a bottom on the shoelace to trigger a light wave that then takes hold of the participating crowd. The color, speed and frequency of each transmitted light wave can be controlled, too. For example, when a green and a red light wave interfere, the resulting light wave can be programmed to turn yellow. The only instruction for the wearer is to stay in the neighborhood or in close proximity to each other in order to stay within the wireless network range of the shoelaces.
For the final installation, we envision a scenario in which the individual becomes part of a larger swarm of light and merges to a giant “metazoan” that moves down the street. One of our goals is to find out what collective actions such a network or “organism” can provoke – and what reactions will occur. For example, how will the coordination, cooperation, and communication work in this network? Can waves of joy or protest be visualized with it? What moods can spread like a virus and affect the whole crowd? What forms of collaborative intelligence or foolishness will emerge? The big vision behind this research project is to create an entirely human-powered internet (i.e. peer-to-peer network) combining a wireless mesh networking platform with a swingharvester in the shoe sole. In other words, the idea is to develop a street-level version of google’s experimental balloon-powered internet project. In Hong Kong, we will show a first prototype of the Internet of Shoes project – a first artistic attempt to visualize data transmission and ad-hoc networks not just as a graphic on a screen, but as a visual effect on the street, where crowd interactions happen, unfiltered and in real time.

In association with Assocreation and Lab 11. Assocreation is an international artist collective, based in Vienna (Austria) and Ann Arbor, Michigan (USA), whose members work anonymously on a wide range of interactive installations and urban interventions. In this collective, they conduct future research on space, technology and human interaction. They create experimental interfaces that engage the public with new modes of human to computer, human to nature, and human to human interaction – often manipulating the ground the public walks on. Most of Assocreation’s work is the outcome of speculative experimentation trying to get a better grasp on emerging technologies or societies they occur. “Assocreation deals with networks and their transitions to tangible realities. One of their materials is the ground under our feet, which it manipulates and networks in order to make it palpable.”  _Friedrich Achleitner. For the “Internet of Shoes” project, they collaborate with Lab 11, an embedded systems research group at the University of Michigan. In general, Assocreation is less interested to make commentaries with their work. Instead, they seek to create platforms or interactive experiences for larger audiences that enable us to listen to the conversations that emerge from it. assocreation.com     lab11.eecs.umich.edu

  • Roland Graf (A/USA) is a media artist, design researcher, and inventor. He collaborates across disciplines to design platforms, games, and interactive systems that reframe the body and interactivity in the built environment. Graf’s doctoral research focused on tracing a convergence of artistic and ludic (i.e., playful) engineering approaches at the intersection of interactive art and human-computer interaction. His current research explores the roles of play and playful exploration of emerging technologies in prototyping and building more accessible and inclusive futures. He is professor at the Stamps School of Art & Design, University of Michigan, USA. [source johncraigfreeman.wordpress.com]

Full text and photo (PDF) p. 21-23

Funded by the University of Michigan Office of Research and the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, University of Michigan, USA.